Alex Salmond in the Marshal Tito Mould

This is a guest post by Tom Gallagher

Scotland’s Alex Salmond  offers the convincing impression of being a glad-handing, benefactor, at ease with artistic folk, world leaders and industrial workers alike. He has a passion for  sports like horse-racing and golf but uses his office to help plucky Scots who he believes embody the talent and grit of a small nation in the shadow of a bigger and sometimes intrusive one, England.

These are some of the human themes which animate his new book, The Dream That never Died: 100 days That Changed Scotland Forever.  As I write, it is no 24 on the Amazon bestsellers list for Britain.

Looking around the gallery of European leaders, it is hard to spot any who currently have equivalent appeal. As someone who spent much of his time researching the politics and recent past of Eastern Europe,  there is but one parallel that  occurs to me.

It is that of Marshal Tito, ruler of Yugoslavia from 1944 to 1980. True, it  is far from exact.  Tito was a renowned internationalist, the architect of complex formula of multi-level governance supposed to take the sting out of Yugoslavia’s ethnic troubles. Salmond and his Scottish National Party, in charge of Scotland’s decentralised institutions since 2007, wish to break-up the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, I believe such a parallel  has some merit.

Tito although a genuine believer in communism,  ruled in a very personal style as if ideology was secondary. He was approachable, avuncular, and the object of a genuine personality cult not just manufactured by a controlled media.

It’s perhaps ironic that Salmond was first noticed outside Scotland thanks to the reverberations of the final military conflict marking the demise of Yugoslavia.

This was the 1999 confrontation over the fate of Kosovo  between NATO and the EU on the one hand, and  Slobodan Milosevic, the second-ranking bureaucrat whose guile enabled him to fill the vacuum created by Tito’s death and then set about systematically demolishing his post-nationalist legacy.

Milosevic appealed for Western opinion to speak out against the bombing of state installations that was meant to halt his repression and deportation of many of the territory’s Albanian citizens.

But Salmond was one of the few Western politicians who played along. This was in a broadcast for his party on 29 March 1999 when  elections  for the newly-created Scottish parliament were drawing near . The normally dominant  Labour Party feared that in an atmosphere of patriotic fervour, the SNP might spring a shock win.

NATO’s air offensive was described by Salmond as ‘an unpardonable folly’ and he even compared it with German attacks on London in 1940.  His comparison of NATO pilots to those of the Luftwaffe caused the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to say he would be ‘the toast of Belgrade’.

The  SNP was crushed electorally and it looked as if Salmond would vanish into obscurity. But he didn’t and 8 years later, he acquired control of most of the internal affairs of Scotland thanks to obtaining a narrow electoral victory.

He was the same age as Tito when, having led  resistance against wartime  foreign occupation, he put his stamp on Yugoslavia future for the next two generations.

Salmond won because of a failure of proponents of Yugoslav-style autonomy in Scotland, known as devolution to  make it work. He got his second chance because its drab and bureaucratic character meant a growing number of Scots hungered for something with a more authentic ring  that was based on territorial nationalism.

A form of personalist rule  has followed, culminating in an attempt to obtain outright independence. The long referendum campaign shook up and polarised Scottish politics in 2014. Salmond’s book describes its last 100 days  when he believed that the nation was poised for freedom and greatness.

‘One of my best qualities is determination’ in the face of adversity’, Salmond  contends. And he is undoubtedly right.  He has been the political underdog often written off by haughty politicians from English elite backgrounds who find themselves out-manouevered by  this shrewd, battle-hardened figure.

Tito took on Joseph Stalin in the late 1940s in order to preserve the national character of his Marxist experiment.  Expecting to crush his revolt, the Soviet leader  stated: ‘when I will shake my little finger and there will be no more Tito’.  Tito faced down Soviet power, survived,  and reached an accommodation with Stalin’s successors.

In 2012,  Salmond wrung clever terms from Prime Minister David Cameron in negotiations over the referendum. The SNP drew up the question, ‘Should Scotland be Independent’ which meant that supporters of British continuity would be campaigning for a negative. Cameron naively  agreed to a campaign stretching over several years which meant that the SNP, indifferent at governing but adept at campaigning, built up powerful momentum.

Salmond’s expectation that London would agree to a currency union which would require an independent Scotland being rescued if it encountered financial difficulties was, however, categorically ruled out once the British leaders realised that they had a real fight on their hands to save the Union.

The campaign diary of Scotland’s First Minister reads like the kind of royal progress which Tito used to make across different parts of Yugoslavia at the height of his prestige. He is as at ease with shipyard l workers as he is with John Kerry, the US Secretary of State who, he claims wished him ‘good luck’ when they were in close proximity at the D day anniversary celebrations in Normandy.  Despite his left-wing orientation,  he  seeks out foreign business people who can boost Scotland’s economic position.  But he cannot resist belittling figures who do not share his vision.

Donald Trump, the well-known American  hotelier  who has clashed with Salmond over his fixation with offshore wind turbines, is dismissed as  someone who ‘loves himself’.  Sir Nicholas Macpherson, arguably Britain’s most respected civil servant,  is accused of radiating ‘hostility’ to Salmond’s freedom cause apparently  because of his ‘family’s extensive land  interests in Scotland’. Nearly all of Britain’s media organs are seen as deluded foes. But it is Salmond’s own self-regard which so often leaps from these pages.  He is ‘unanimously and warmly greeted by crowds’  and ‘thunderous applause’ invariably greets ‘a rousing address’.

But without Salmond’s  self-belief would his movement have accomplished the journey from the political wilderness to the centre of power? It is doubtful.  He describes the process of charming leaders like the Chinese vice-premier Li Keqiang but his public opposition to Scottish separatism goes unmentioned in the book. Tony Abbott’s forthright opposition to the break-up of Britain instead elicits a ferocious reaction from Salmond who describes the Australian premier as ‘a plonker’ and a ‘misogynist’.

As one of the drivers of the non-aligned movement, composed of countries determined to remain aloof from the Cold War, Tito obtained more international prestige for his Balkan country than any part of South-East-Europe had known for many centuries.  Salmond ‘s desire for Scotland to exercise global leverage is undisguised.  On 13 March, the head of the nationalists in the UK parliament, Angus Robertson, even warned that SNP backing for any future UK government would be conditional on Britain ceasing to ‘pretend to be a world power’ and renouncing military intervention abroad.

The SNP is on course to snatch perhaps nearly all the Labour Party’s 49 seats in Scotland and holding the balance of power at Westminster after the May 7 general election. The omens are good for Salmond. Huge crowds are turning out for his book launches. He is no longer head of his party but he may dream now of being the elder statesman who steers Scotland towards outright independence or the enjoyment of sweeping federal powers.

But the projected oil revenues of over £7b which he confidently predicted would power the creation of an independent state have now shrunk to £0.7 billion due to the collapse in the price of that commodity. Yugoslavia’s failure to balance its books in the 1980s led to the resurgence of internecine nationalism. But thanks to a magnetic salesman like Salmond, economic impracticality is proving no barrier to the advance of a movement which threatens to shake up  the geopolitics of north-west Europe.

Tom Gallagher’s is an Edinburgh-based political scientist. His  latest book, ‘Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration Through Monetary Union’ was  published in paperback by Manchester University Press .